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It started with an immersion circulator, aka a sous vide device. Truth is, all I wanted one for was to cook a perfectly poached egg. God knows how many gadgets for poaching eggs I’ve tried, only to throw them out in a bin meant for old batteries, busted bulbs and dead cellphones. I like my poached eggs with whites firm enough so I don’t have that wet, gloopy mucous running on my plate and ruining a perfect toast, but with a yolk that oozes out in cinematic slow-motion the moment I slice a knife through. Yes, the money shot!

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The sous vide device delivered, and more. Three, six, a dozen eggs poached to uniform doneness (while I Facebook in another room), check! A perfect medium-rare (sans that nasty brown edge) New York Strip, check! Hollandaise Sauce, the thought of which terrified and got me all clumsy and messy in the kitchen, check check check! Oh, of course it helps to have a whipping siphon for dispensing Hollandaise sauce that’s velvety and decadent-looking.

I guess things just escalated from there. My kitchen has turned into a playground, and me – as a friend has so aptly put it – into a culinary adolescent. A kid at play has no fear of failure; that’s the beauty of it.

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Balsamic Vinegar Pearls

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Beet spheres, olive oil, minced rosemary

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Liquid olives, an Albert & Ferran Adria recipe, tasted for the first time at Tickets Restaurant, Barcelona.

 

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Our daughter, Rama, was born in the Philippines. It’s a country known for its hot and humid weather but, more notoriously, for its fierce storms and typhoons. On days when rains seemed incessant, the family usually found comfort and security in happy banter at the table, while the aroma of rice steaming wafted from the kitchen. We knew what Rama loved most on days like these: rice cooked as porridge, with toppings of chicken and – yes, like most Filipino food – with some fish sauce stirred in. To this day, say Arroz Caldo and her eyes light up. Somehow this dish evokes a deep sense of comfort and nostalgia in her. Now that we all huddle in cold Canadian winter, nothing can be more perfect!

This recipe serves 4.

Ingredients:

1 cup leftover roast chicken (white meat, pulled or shredded), divided;

2 tbsp neutral oil, like canola

¼ cup diced onion

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 tbsp ginger, peeled and chopped

2 cups white rice (medium grain or Arborio)

4-5 cups chicken broth

Water, as needed

White pepper, to taste

Fish sauce or salt to taste

Sliced green onion or scallion to garnish

Lemon juice to finish

Directions:

1.Saute onions, garlic and ginger in oil until onion is softened and the garlic and ginger are aromatic but not burned;

2.Add rice and stir to coat with oil;

3.Season with fish sauce or salt;

4.Add broth and bring to a boil; lower heat to simmer until rice is soft;

5.Add more broth or water for desired consistency or if porridge is too dry;

6.Before removing from heat, stir in half of the chicken and season with salt and pepper as needed.

7.Ladle equal amounts into 4 bowls; top each with chicken and green onions.

8.Finish with a drizzle of lemon juice.

Variation:

  1. Use salt instead of fish sauce; garnish with a pinch or two of saffron. Serve with a wedge of lemon.

This list is a short one. The many other gadgets I bought for the kitchen this year turned out to be either useless (I have yet to make yogurt or almond milk that will put my 100-micron Superbag to use), redundant (a steamer is a steamer is a steamer), or downright dumb – yeah, like a set of mini spoons that measure a tad, a dash, a pinch, a smidgen and a drop!

But those that made it to this list, I truly and absolutely love! It’s not because they’ve made me a better cook, but for the simple reason that they’ve turned my kitchen into a space for adventure and play!

1. Sansaire Immersion Circulator, aka sous vide machine. The 64ºC egg, need I say more? Not to mention steaks that cook to a perfect medium-rare every. single. time. Or chicken breasts that won’t ever come out undercooked or overcooked and dry. Modernist? In the kitchen, that’s not a bad word.

2. Vitamix Blender.  Was it really worth the price? And what’s all that cult following about? We rented a unit from The Kitchen Library – you know, “to try before we buy”. The verdict: yes! In fact, it’s even worth going for the top-end 750 Professional. And yes, the cult is totally understandable. The smoothest smoothie of banana, peanut butter and chia seeds we’ve ever made. 2-horsepower, baby!

3. Silit Pressure Cooker. Making soup? Carrots you want to make into soup just won’t soften and caramelize when cooked in an ordinary pot on a stovetop the way they do in a pressure cooker . Or leeks, or cauliflower at that. Caramelized, with all the flavour kept in, is how you want them before they are pureéd (in the Vitamix, preferably) into silken, satisfying soups. We’re not even talking “garlic confit” yet.

4. Le Creuset Braising Pan. Sear. Fry. Or braise. From stovetop to tabletop. Beautiful.

5. Molecule-R Whipping Siphon. Whipped creams and soda drinks are so 80’s. How about fizzy, liquor-infused cubes of melon? Or a Modernist Cuisine version of hollandaise sauce? Let’s play!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,300 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 38 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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I think it will be months before I start cooking adobo again. Not after the AdoboAidTO dinner fundraiser, not after I cooked more than 20lbs of pork and chicken and fed more than 50 donor-guests, not after I spent three days chopping meat, seasoning, marinating them overnight and finally braising them for hours in the kitchen. Days after the event, the house is still redolent of garlic and vinegar. But there’s a reason why adobo is a staple in town fiestas, the dish to serve when feeding an entire barangay. Much like the “5 loaves and 2 fish” that fed a multitude of 5,000 and left enough for the twelve disciples to eat, adobo doesn’t seem to run out. And there will be, inevitably, adobo leftovers.

The good thing is, there are many amazing ways to reprise the adobo.

1. Fried adobo

This is actually how I like my adobo. Unfortunately, for the AdoboAid dinner, I didn’t have the time and the right-sized skillet to fry big batches of adobo. My mom, a capampangan, would braise the meats for hours and then, right before serving, fry the meats in extra oil. The result was adobo with layers of flavours and a dark, delicious crust.

A breakfast of adobo flakes, adobo rice and achara

A breakfast of adobo flakes, adobo rice and achara

2. Adobo Flakes

Sometimes we cook adobo just to make adobo flakes. This has been Rama’s favourite since she was 4, when her Yaya Melindi would coarsely “osterize” leftover adobo and fry it to crunchy bits. What I do, though, is shred the meats and fry them. Great with fried egg, fried rice and a little achara on the side. How Filipino can breakfast get?

3. Adobo Fried Rice

I often have more adobo sauce left in the pot than I know what to do with. Well, I’ve learned to pour them on cooked rice, stirring in just enough sauce to coat the rice evenly. I then set the rice aside in the fridge overnight or longer, allowing the rice to “lose moisture”.  You don’t want to use soggy rice for fried rice; wet or soggy rice turns limp when it hits the oil and you get clumpy fried rice. Ugh! That’s the reason only left-over rice is used for fried rice. The Chinese have a descriptor for the perfect fried rice: jumping rice. Yes, nicely “dried out” rice literally jumps around on a hot, oiled wok or pan. You can almost hear the rice go “Wheee! Wheee! Wheee!”

So, heat oil. Add smashed cloves of garlic. Throw in small chunks of left-over adobo (if any). Add the rice. Add vegetables, like peas and carrots, if you wish. Mix. Plate. Eat. A meal in itself.

I’d love to learn of more ways to reprise the adobo. Maybe a Pulled Pork Adobo Taco?

(Top photo: ingredients of the classic adobo – vinegar, garlic, peppercorn, bay leaf)

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AdoboAid was the brainchild of Maida Pineda, a blogger, whose call to help raise funds for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan was posted on Facebook. The idea was to cook adobo, gather friends for dinner and pass the hat around for donations. Better yet, for Filipinos – wherever they are in the world – to host those adobo dinners at the same time, on the same day, November 23. Imagine the Philippine diaspora – more than 10 million Filipinos living abroad – watching helplessly as news coverage of the worst typhoon disaster of the century unfold on tv. Herself a Filipino expatriate, blogger Maida Pineda knew exactly how it felt to be away from home and wanting to help. Well, here was a way Filipinos living abroad could reach out and share in the on-going disaster relief efforts…”one adobo dinner at a time”.

I thought it was a brilliant idea, one that would surely appeal to that uniquely Filipino character in us. Didn’t we always love a party, turning even a People Power revolution into one? Didn’t we rather be jovial than angry or somber, even as we took on the most menial of jobs in even the most inhospitable country? And didn’t we all have that weekend, that birthday, that town fiesta, that Christmas holiday we always looked forward to as a time to gather with friends and family? And wasn’t food always in the centre of these gatherings? If we had been described as a resilient nation – with photos of smiling kids against a backdrop of devastation as proof – this must be our secret.

Which is why adobo made so much sense. A “resilient dish” was how Maida Pineda described our national dish. Adobo’s main ingredient is vinegar, which keeps it from spoiling, even without refrigeration. It can be kept for days, tasting even better the longer it stays in the fridge.

If there’s a dish we can truly call our own, it’s adobo. It predates the arrival of the Spanish on Philippine shores, perhaps even the earlier days of trading with the Chinese. The Spanish called it adobo, after a Mexican dish, although there were hardly any similarities between the two. The Philippine adobo is a much simpler and austere dish: meat – usually pork – braised in vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper, cooked for 1-2 hours over low fire. The addition of soy sauce is, clearly, a Chinese influence. There are also as many variations of adobo as there are regions in the country, such as adobo sa gata (coconut milk) in Southern Luzon. In the Visayas, they prefer their adobo dry, with a little oil. In Pampanga, where my mother hails from, the adobo is braised and then fried, which is the way I like my adobo done. Vegetables make very good adobo, too: adobong kangkong (swamp cabbage) and adobong sitaw (long beans). In fact, every Filipino family boasts of its own adobo recipe – innumerable tweaks to an immutable dish.

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Footnote: AdoboAid Toronto served 50 plates of Adobo, with rice and a side of homemade achara (pickled green papaya, carrots, green bell pepper, raisins and ginger).  It raised $1750 in donations from friends and neighbours. The donations were forwarded to GlobalMedic, a Canadian organization which responds to disasters with a Rescue Unit, Water Purification Unit and Emergency Medical Unit, so badly needed in the typhoon-devastated areas. Since GlobalMedic is a qualified charity organization, the Canadian government will match the donation, dollar for dollar, thus bringing the total donation of AdoboAidTO to $3,500!

Maraming salamat!

Tried and Tasted

Clockwise, from top right: Callos, Prawns in Aligue Sauce, Achara, Sisig, Chicken Empanada, Ukoy.

This blog scored 2,700 views in 2012.

Nothing to crow about, of course, considering I’d get that much traffic on my old blog in a week! But that’s what happens when a blog sputters to a stand still. It must have been frustrating for readers to return to a blog that hasn’t been updated for months, with stories and recipes that have gone – in much the same way as an old pizza in the ref – stale.

Click here to see the complete WordPress report.

It’s not that myopenkitchen has closed. In fact, there’s been a lot of cooking during those months. It’s the writing that got stuck – with this writer unable to heave an ounce of effort to yank herself out of what seemed like a writer’s block. Or blocks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Not to mention the endless links that led everywhere and nowhere, but this blog.

Hence the resolve for 2013: cook, celebrate and move that cursor along!

“Three words. In three words I can explain why our food will never see world domination.”

Lee, the only non-Filipino in my audience, pretended to listen; she and my mom were bonding over a bowl of spaghetti. She watched as my mom topped the noodles with an oily, lumpy, yellow-orange paste spooned straight out of a jar.

Taba ng talangka.” I said. “There, three words. Literal translation, the fat of the crab. But that, actually, is not fat; it’s the roe. See, even we are confused!”

“It’s not crab roe, “ my mom said, adding to Lee’s confusion. “What I mean is, this is not from crabs. No, not those blue crabs, or whatever you call those crabs your Uncle Dado brings from Scotia. It’s from small crabs, but not baby crabs.”

She held up an imaginary crustacean between her thumb and index finger.

Talangka are small, no more than 2 inches, and we catch them from rivers in the Philippines. You don’t see small shore crabs here. So this,” her hand shook a bit, “this is special.”

Taba ng talangka. I enunciated each word, demonstrating to Lee how the tongue should freeze mid-mouth on the ‘ba and the ‘ka. Accent on those last syllables, I coaxed, but it was the ng she struggled with. “It’s nang, dearie, as in bang! bang! – except you let the sound bounce a bit on the roof of your mouth, like an echo.”

Bang! Bang-nnnggg! You’re dead!

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My mom stood frozen before the customs officer at Pearson, as if he had pulled out a gun and pointed it at her heart. Her heart happened to be right there in her maroon suitcase, sealed in a small jar, swathed in printed scarves and an old blouse.

“So what’s in there?”

“Sir, I did NOT bring food!”

The customs officer opened her suitcase. “I didn’t ask if you brought food…” She felt the cold nozzle on her chest as he dug through the clothes. The steel instrument peeled off layers – skin, muscles, wall – until it struck glass.

He fished out the small jar and examined its contents. In it was some curd, a ghastly pale orange in color, and it was swimming in oil. His head jerked back, “What is this?”

Eto na naman kami,” my mom muttered under her breath.

Here we go again. When did that begin to be the sound of despair?

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Here we go again! Nena felt a rush of excitement as soon as the skies cleared and the buzz of Japanese planes receded to the west. Her brother, Dado, leapt ahead of her; six other kids followed. “Race to the river!” Nena felt the back of her knees; it was moist with sweat from crouching too long under a pile of felled coconut trees.

While the boys splashed noisily in the water, Nena walked to a shallow edge and resumed the day’s hunt. With a piece of coconut shell, she scoured the riverbank for the little creatures that bore in the sand. Of course, she needed at least a hundred of these tiny crabs, a basketful, as Dado alone could eat half of that in one sitting. Her brother tended to be wasteful, scraping their flesh with his teeth and discarding the rest – the crunchy shells and legs which she loved and all of which she ate. “The idiot doesn’t know what he’s missing,” she thought.

The past months had been a good season for these small shore crabs. The warplanes had scared off the birds that usually swooped down and flew away with the tiny crustaceans in their beaks. There were fewer chickens and lizards, too, to feed on the hatchlings that swam near the riverbanks, creeks and irrigation canals. Their small town had been spared from Japanese presence and American bombs, but food became more scarce as the conflict neared its end. Neighbors had stopped raising fowl and hog, lest they attract stragglers from the Japanese Imperial Army or members of the People’s Army against the Japanese, the hukbalahaps, who, at times, trooped down the hills of Arayat for a hot meal. Even the trees seemed shellshocked and had stopped bearing fruit; the rice fields were the most vulnerable and simply wasted away. Down at the river, though, there was still some mudfish to be caught, and the talangka proved to be a hardy species. Every summer, despite the feeding frenzy of creatures from land, water and sky, no matter how the war raged in the distance, the crablets continued to reproduce by the thousands.

That afternoon Nena must have gathered a few hundred tiny crabs. She was so pleased with herself that she didn’t mind if the crabs kept crawling and snapping their way out of the baskets. But Dado wasn’t very happy that he had to pick up after her and toss back the escapees one by one, all the way home. Nena couldn’t help but gloat.

More than the crunch of its shell, it was the roe that Nena loved – and this harvest was big enough for steamed crablets AND taba ng talangka. Her mom could plate just enough for herself and her two children, the rest set aside for later that evening, to be dealt with when the dishes were washed and dried, the windows shut and peace descended on the dark outside.

“Yesss! Here we go…!” Nena made sure she rubbed her thumbs vigorously as she washed her hands. She glared at Dado who refused to do as she did. The thumbs had to be their cleanest, she explained, as they would do most of the work, pushing the roe from the crabs’ small, almost hollow shells, making sure not a bit dropped off the bowl and fell into the cracks of the dining table.

Nena watched her mom toss the tiny nuggets into the heat. Smoke rose from the pan like a cloud, a cumulus redolent with annato oil, garlic and vinegar. It had been sometime since the smell of food – the ones that reminded her of fiestas and rice harvests – enveloped their home.

The aroma wafted past the pile of rotting trunks, crossed the now still river; it grazed the rice paddies, then hopscotched over the hills. The dark mountain seemed to suck it all in. Old people often spoke of a crater at the top of Mount Arayat, a mouth they said led to the belly of a sleeping volcano. Nena wasn’t sure if it was the rumble of its hunger she felt, but the ground where their shack stood trembled.

Craaaaack! A bamboo slat broke under the heavy boots of intruders.

Huks! Nena pressed against the table, immediately sensing her mom’s fear: there was hardly any rice left, nothing else for these men to seize but…!

The men cast such large shadows on the wall that Nena was surprised to find that they were no taller than her mom. They were, in fact, as gaunt and bent from the shoulders as the old men she knew. They had come down from Arayat, some of them soldiers long abandoned by their American allies – maybe survivors of the Death March – who now foraged small towns for food and some kindness.

One of the men had his rifle slung casually over his shoulder, while the rest kept their fingers on the trigger. His face bore a long, ugly scar from a Japanese bayonet, but it was his small, deliberate movements that scared Nena. She could tell he was the kumander.

Leaders usually bore the worst battle scars, or more often, the most bitter personal tragedies; theirs is a sorrow so deep and black, it paced like an animal in the hollow of their chests. When she was six, Nena witnessed how the kumander let loose his monster – with such small gesture as tipping a hat – to seal the fate of eleven men, all alleged collaborators.

Every time a man killed, a bit of him died. If that was true, then Kumander Simon was long dead. People talked in whispers about a wife and a daughter, dragged by hooded men along with other wives and children of USAFFE soldiers and guerillas. They said at the precise moment his family was lined up against a wall and shot, his rage could be heard all the way from Bataan. It was then that he made his escape, breaking away from the March that snaked down its craggy hills. Amid the silent cheers of the wounded and weakened, he struck a Japanese guard, using the same bayonet that tore his flesh. He must have struck the enemy one hundred, two hundred times, before he disappeared into the forest. Now and then he would emerge from the dark, cold and without a soul.

Kumander Simon took off his buri hat and bowed to her mom. “Did your daughter help you make that?”

Nena eased away from the table. Her mom’s and her own 9-year old frame parted like curtains. And there it was, still warm and glistening with oil, the jar her mom ever so carefully filled with the day’s harvest, the gold her small hands mined for hours, the fat – no, the roe! – of small shore crabs.

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“And to the bin they all went. You’d think my mom would stop after her third attempt…”

“So what got it through Customs this time, your, ah, taba ng talangka?” Lee asked, surprised at how easily the foreign words came out.

“Luck.” My mom shrugged; the pasta was now thoroughly coated in roe.

“Of course it helped that this time the jar was vacuum-sealed in a friend’s factory.” I said.

“Do you think they care if it’s vacuum-sealed or not?” my mom shot back. “They toss out these things, things they don’t know or understand. But sometimes you get lucky… they look at you – and they look you in the eye, which isn’t often – and then they suddenly seem to understand. They see an old lady and they see this jar with weird stuff in it. So God knows what they really see that makes them… kinder. Maybe it’s because we are all immigrants here in Canada. They see the same thing in their mothers’ eyes.”

She reached across the table for a thick wedge of lime. “It’s best to use kalamansi, the small round Philippine lime, but in a pinch, any lime will do… a little squeeze to take away the fishiness of the roe. Here,” laying the plate in front of Lee, “Try it. You’ve never had pasta sauce like this.”

Lee twirled the spaghetti around her fork, making sure the noodles picked up every morsel of roe from her plate. “Won’t you have any?” When she looked up, my mom had already walked to the stove.

“I prefer it simple, with just a drizzle of lime, on hot steaming rice.”

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“Did your daughter help you make this?”

Kumander Simon asked again as he reached for the crab roe. Meanwhile, his men had found the can of rice among the firewood. They also took the salt her mom kept in a small jar. Now they waited for their kumander to hand over the night’s precious loot.

Nena couldn’t help it; she let out a soft cry.

Kumander Simon turned and looked her in the eye. “Did you help your inang make this?”

Nena threw herself behind her mom. His cold stare had softened but still it terrified her, even more so when it settled on her tiny hands, the thumbs stained with roe.

“It’s hard work gathering these little creatures. You can spend the whole day by the river, not noticing the time pass. Before you know it, the war is over and you’re spared of its horrors.”

Kumander Simon placed the jar back on the table. “I certainly wouldn’t mind a little of that crab roe, on a bowl of steaming rice. But not tonight,” he signalled his men to leave. “Perhaps in better times… if I’m lucky.”

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My mom knew I didn’t care much for this stuff. To anyone born in North America, it’s just too exotic, too rich and its smell rather off-putting. But it wasn’t everyday that taba ng talangka would find its way to our home, less so survive the rough handlings at airports, the scrutiny at Customs, and worse, my indifference at the table. So I thought I’d indulge her.

I helped myself to a bowl. When I turned around, spoon in mouth, I caught a glint in my mom’s eyes.

Suddenly, I felt the sharp citric flavor of kalamansi kick in, only to dissolve and open up to what could be the taste of the ocean. The brine softened as it lingered on the palate. Then I noted a taste of moss – or was it fiddlehead – the kind one picked along riverbeds. That too receded, as if rocks and pebbles filtered out the ocean and the river, filtered out Time even, hushing everything – wars, childbirths, journeys, deaths, – down to a narrow and quiet stream.

The reflection of a child’s face blurred as her small hands dipped into the water. From its bed a thousand small shore crabs emerged, each heavy with roe.

Nena’s eyes lit up, like she had struck gold.

*** END ***

This story was inspired by a friend’s anecdote at a party, about her mom’s numerous attempts to sneak taba ng talangka past the Canadian customs. It was hilarious, and I knew every Filipino in the room could relate with her story, as I did. It evoked images of my childhood, of my mom, of us kids gathered around the table, picking the roe from talangka. Yes, we made our own talangka delicacies – more often its buro version. It was a seasonal treat we enjoyed in many ways: as a side dish, as sauce and, best of all, as rice topping drizzled with kalamansi.

Thanks, Gene, for this pasalubong.

Adobong puso ng saging is a staple in our Liberty Village household. Why? Because Poch loves it – its vegetarian version, of course – her eyes lighting up every time I tell her of dinner plans that include this simple, oh-so-humble dish. I don’t know anyone else who loves this dish as much as she does. Really, what’s there to love?  Chopped into tiny, unrecognizable bits and stewed in vinegar and soy sauce, it’s the archetype of Filipino cuisine – brown, limp and unattractive.

Puso ng saging – literally, heart of the banana – is, of course, a misnomer. It’s actually the bud, flower or blossom of the banana plant which, by the way, isn’t even a tree. Why it’s called the heart, I can only venture a guess. Maybe because it is shaped like a heart? Maybe, like a heart, its tender part hides beneath so many tough layers? Or because it takes a lot of heart – love, that is – to prepare this deceptively uncomplicated adobo dish? Sappy? Definitely.

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2 banana buds

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 finger chili

1. In a bowl of water, dissolve about 2 tablespoons of salt. Set aside.

2. Peel the tough red outer layers of the banana hearts until you reach the yellow or pale-colored part. Slice and immediately place the pieces in the salted water. Massage the pieces for 3 minutes to remove the bitter sap. Squeeze dry and discard the water that now looks soapy and brackish. Repeat the process.

3. Place the banana heart pieces in a non-reactive pot (enamelled or stainless steel) or a cazuela. Add the vinegar, soy sauce, the 1/4 cup of water, garlic, pepper. Top with the finger chill. Bring to a boil. When the pot has boiled for about 5 minutes and no longer smells of raw vinegar, stir to combine the flavour. Discard the finger chill. Cover the pot and simmer on low heat for another 5 minutes or until the banana heart pieces are tender.

4. Serve with hot, steamed rice and a siding of diced semi-ripe mango, chopped tomatoes and torn cilantro.

Poch, this bud’s for you…